A Conversation with Anthony Neil Smith
I’d wanted to have a conversation with Anthony Neil Smith for a long time. He has written some of the meanest and most visceral crime novels I’ve read in the past 5 years.
I asked a couple of mutual friends about him and the both said things along the lines of “You’re both a couple of mean spirited fucks, You’ll get along famously.” [ANS: Names and numbers, please.]
I got in touch with
Anthony [ANS: Call me “Neil”] and I could tell he was hesitant to do an interview with me. The impression I got was that’s he’s a guarded man and for good reason. Like many others including myself, he’s been burned by the world more than once and it’s left a mark. When you’ve dealt with that one time or 12, you develop self defense mechanisms. Cost of doing business. Best defense is a good offense. Hey, it’s how I roll so I get it.
So we set the time and we had a conversation.
It was a conversation I needed to have. The man is a teacher and I learned from his words.
tThe best teachers inspire their students and I walked away with a much needed dose of inspiration. The students who get to sit in his classroom are lucky.
Anyway, it was a far reaching conversation. It started out like a traditional interview and spun into something unexpected and very cool.
We talked about writing and what makes us happy about it. And we talked about what makes us angry and pisses us off about it. Common ground was in abundance.
As we talked I knew I’d be proud of the end result. I was also excited about the controversy this piece would kick off. It was a no hold barred talk. [ANS: No need for the trigger warning. Let them stumble into it on their own] We talked a lot of shit. Names were named and bodies were dug up and examined. I knew chunks of the piece would be redacted. Parts of the conversation were clearly not meant for the public. [ANS: Let’s burn some bridges.]
The conversation really did get to the point where I felt like I was a student getting advice from the cool [revered] teacher and what was even better was the respect being mutual. I told him about my goals and he encouraged me. He said to go after everything, to not get sidetracked, just get it done.
Those were things I needed to hear
He told me about the heart and soul that he put into writing and wondering if it was worth it. [ANS: It is and it isn’t] He told me sometimes he wasn’t sure if his books reached anyone. It gave me great pleasure to tell him that his books were worth it, that he was reaching plenty of people and the rest could fuck themselves.
Afterwards he thanked me for my words.
We talked for just under 2 hours.
Then I sat down to transcribe it where to my horror after the 25 minute mark massive chunks of the recording were nothing but static and I was crushed. [ANS: Spooky] I’ve listened to the recording 4x.
After the 1.20 mark there were a couple stretches that were clear that I don’t want to share because it was the teacher-student type stuff and I’m selfish and private and what he said to me…..I’m going to hold those words close because he got me to see writing with different eyes and I truly don’t know how to thank him for that. [ANS: There is no way to do so.]
Also, full disclosure, there was one stretch where what was said…..Hahahaha we were like 2 kids playing with matches in an attic stuffed with old newspapers and we burned the fucking house down.
Very sorry we’re not sorry motherfuckers. It was glorious.
Go track down the books of Anthony Neil Smith. The Billy Lafitte novels are brilliant. There are 4 in the series and I did express to ANS my hopes that he would write the 5th and final novel of the series because some of us out there….we love this series and need to see how it ends. [ANS: Still undecided] His stand alone novel Worm from 2015 is the best crime novel I’ve read since 2013. [ANS: Damn straight] The Drummer was a bleak and beautiful rock and roll tale. All The Young Warriors in a timely tale of crime and terrorism. Choke On Your Lies is the definition of twisted….No wait, his novel Psychosomatic is…hell, go and read them and decide for yourself.
And finally, support your favorite writers. Let them know they matter. Read their books, buy them or get them from the library, don’t care. Just read them and let the authors know what they do matters. I’m talking more about the guys (or Ladies) like Anthony Neil Smith, the independents grinding it out because of the passion that drives them to create not just for themselves but to the readers who are searching for a thrill where others don’t go. [ANS: I’d sell out in a minute if someone would let me.]
D: Your books, you put your characters through fucking hell, unlike anybody else I’ve ever read, I gotta talk spoilers but, I’ve never come across a character in a book that had “Baby Raper” carved into their chest hahahahaha Why do you put them through such hell?
ANS: I can’t really figure it out, it seems like he deserved it especially after Yellow Medicine, the idea Lafitte was born by watching The Shield, he was the unsavory protagonist that you root for anyway. The difference is the thing that redeemed Mackey on the Shield was he always had his family, his wife and child, and I always thought what a bullshit out. I always thought what if you had a character who didn’t have that sort of out, you know his wife left him and is far away and really the only measure of sort of moral is what he decides when he wakes up that day. So the first book was sort of exploring that and then after that I said I want to try it in the 3rd person, I don’t really want much of him telling the story, I want to see how other people think of him and that’s just me letting him get what he deserves.
D: The Arc of the story, all 4 books, are drastically different, I loved how in The Baddest Ass, you took Lafitte almost out of the story completely, made him secondary, but the evolution of his character from book to book, is so defined, it’s like he is constantly becoming a different person. And by the end of Holy Death you have this sort of Frankenstein’s monster. I wanted to ask how you researched the whole private prison element?
ANS: I kind of just ran with it, I was in a position where I thought if I wanted to do any real researching of prisons, I kind of figured it would limit me to the point of well here are the rules of prison and you can’t do this and that so much like the guys who created the prison in Face Off, the writers invented the prison they needed in order to make their story so I said “What’s the best way for me to create a prison?” So that’s why it’s a private prison still under construction, they’re so greedy so they started putting people in even though it’s still under construction. Even though it’s kind of a hard to believe scenario as far as what actually happens in a prison riot, uh somebody can say I can see some greedy assholes opening a prison too early for money’s sake. That’s the believable part, the rest I just made up.
D: Actually a lot of it is pretty right on, there have been so many documented incidences of abuses and corruption in private prisons. Recently the Department of Justice decided they will no longer use private prisons anymore.
ANS: The writer Les Edgarton famously spent some time in prison, I don’t know the whole extent of it, but he wouldn’t mind me saying this, I asked him about how realistic it is, I didn’t want it to be completely fake and he thought I did pretty well which made me feel better. It all came down to what I felt might be more realistic and as long as he said it was ok, I felt good moving forward.
D: So you teach, you’re a professor, are your students aware of your books?
ANS: Every once in a while they are. Sometimes I’ll mention the fact that I’m a writer to make a point about revision or why we do certain things or to make somebody feel better about having to revise their 5 page paper because I had to revise my 300 page book 4x. And sometimes they’ll ask, sometimes the creative writing students will have read my books but I would feel really weird pushing them to do it, I would never start a class and mention it. I like to fly under the radar especially now because I really like to teach students who are first coming to college and writing and maybe they need a little extra help because they didn’t get enough in high school or they don’t feel confident enough. I like teaching those students and and I don’t want to tell them what I do. But one the other day, was asking about it in my office so I showed them my books and they were really impressed and they mentioned they read Vince Flynn novels and I thought oh cool you know that’s a connection I can make because a lot of people, students in my classes, I don’t know if they read James Patterson of Vince Flynn or anything so that happens but I stay beneath the radar.
D: Have you ever had any push back from the faculty about your books?
ANS: No, I think they are just happy that I publish books even if for me the companies I’m publishing with are very small time. The ones they publish with are usually even smaller. So the way my university works is their not very snobbish which we have an under graduate writing program not a graduate writing program and there were a few people every now and again who are snobbish about literature and what you should have in the class and they don’t want sci-fi or fantasy or crime stuff necessarily in class and I don’t mind it, I just tell students who do sci-fi to be prepared to get a blistering spanking if you produce the same cliched boring shit, I’m just gonna call it out because I want you to be better but so far, I’ve been there about 11 years now and I don’t get any push back. Very early on when I was there, the first couple years, someone wrote anonymously in this report about the creative writing program that we needed a bigger name faculty member to come in and join the faculty and bump our reputation up with the creative writing snobs and they even said “Neil’s books are good and all but he’s never going to be a national name, he’s never going to have a national reach”. And it’s funny now because of the cult status gives me a bit of that national reach.
D: You definitely have a status, I mean my buddy Matt who lives in Texas, we’re both big fans of yours, he just started contributing to Crimespree and he loves your stuff and it seems like frankly there are 2 camps, the people that don’t know you and the people that love your shit, it’s on or the other and there is no middle ground.
ANS: The people that hate me though, those are the interesting ones. I had one guy walk out of a AWP panel I was on concerning genre fiction, this was when AWP didn’t do alot of genre, and the panel was me and Victor Gischler, and this guy got up very early in the panel and walked out and I asked a friend who worked with him later what that was all about and she said it was a little protest, that he didn’t think we should talk about genre at AWP, didn’t think it should be at the convention and I was like i so want to meet this guy and she wouldn’t take me to meet him. I just would have loved to ask him to his face why his stuff is more important than the genre writers. I like to provoke sometimes.
D: How can you not? Even with what I do, I have to try and provoke at times. If you don’t it just gets boring and if you set out trying to please people you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot from the start.
ANS: Even the people who like the first Billy Lafitte novel, I kind of knew I was going to fuck them over with the second one and after that I do them as experiments, I keep changing them even though I’m not sure there will be anymore after the 4th book. But my first readers who read Yellow Medicine and I don’t care about spoilers, if you haven’t read it yet, fuck it. But they said “Why didn’t Billy kill Rome and I said that he really didn’t have a reason to. I do show the evolution of Billy becoming a murderer.